Medical researchers and scientists have been quibbling over the exact definition of 'pandemic,' but they agree on one thing. When pandemics happen, they cause a lot of suffering and death. The world has experienced above-normal disease occurrences over centuries. Pandemics like influenza, smallpox, bubonic plague, and cholera have gone down in history as some of the most brutal killers. In this article, we review 20 of the Worst Pandemics ever to rock the world.
20. Circa Epidemic ( 3000 BC)
Around 5,000 years ago, a prehistoric Chinese village was wiped out by an epidemic. The death toll was so high that dead bodies were often piled inside houses and burned to the ground. From the skeletons found inside the houses, it is clear that the epidemic affected everyone, from children to the middle-aged. Hamin Mangha, the archaeological site where the remains were discovered, is among the best-preserved sites in the country. Anthropological and archaeological studies show that the epidemic was fast and brutal, and the people did not have enough time to bury the dead properly. The village remained uninhabited after the epidemic until it was discovered.
19. Plague of Athens (430 BC)
The Plague of Athens wreaked havoc across Athens for five years from around 430 BC, shortly after the war between Sparta and Athens started. According to Thucydides, the Greek historian, otherwise healthy people would succumb to sudden attacks of "violent heats in the head" and inflammation of the tongue, throat, and eyes. They would also emit an "unnatural and fetid breath" and become bloody. Experts have long debated the nature and cause of the Plague of Athens. Many believe it might have been Ebola, while others poster it was typhoid. Either way, estimates put the death toll for this pandemic at over 100,000 people.
18. Antonine Plague (165 to 180 AD)
Soldiers returning to the Roman Empire from their campaigning mission brought back an ugly surprise – the Antonine Plague. The plague, which experts believe may have been smallpox, killed over 5 million civilians and decimated the Roman army. It was a major contributing factor to the end of the Roman Peace era, during which Rome was at the height of power, between 27 BC and 180 AD. It led to instability in the Empire and left Rome weakened against the invasions from barbarian groups.
17. Plague of Cyprian (250 to 271 AD)
Like its successor, the Plague of Cyprian was named after a person, this time a Carthage bishop called St. Cyprian. St. Cyprian is noted for saying the epidemic signaled the end of the world. While his prediction was ultimately inaccurate, the plague was extremely devastating and caused over 5,00 daily deaths in Rome. Archeologists discovered a mass burial site in Luxor in 2014 that is believed to have been used for the Plague of Cyprian victims. Nobody is sure about the origins, but Cyprian described the symptoms as the bowels relaxing into "constant flux" and people experiencing violent bodily discharges and mouth wounds. The dead were buried covered in lime, which was used as a disinfectant.
16. Plague of Justinian (541 to 542 AD)
The bubonic plague also made rounds as the Plague of Justinian between 541 and 542 AD. It was named after Justinian, the Byzantine Emperor, and marked the start of the Empire's decline. According to some estimates, it killed about 10 percent of the world's population and is considered the first recorded occurrence of the bubonic plague. It killed 25 percent of the Eastern Mediterranean population and, at its height, was responsible for 5,000 daily deaths in the city of Constantinople. By its end, it has decimated over 40 percent of the city's population.
15. The Black Death (1346 to 1353)
The 'original' Black Death spread from Asia to Europe in 1346, causing a lot of death and destruction in its wake. By some estimates, the pandemic killed over half of the population in Europe, with an estimated toll of 75 to 200 million people. It was caused by Yersinia pestis; a bacterium strain believed to have spread through fleas on infected rodents. The strain is assumed to be extinct today. As with the Great Plague of London, victims that succumbed to The Black Death were buried in mass graves. The pandemic, although devastating, is said to have contributed to innovation and improved access to food.
14. Cocoliztli Epidemic (1545 to 1548)
The Cocoliztli epidemic was a type of hemorrhagic fever infection that killed over 15 million people in Central America and Mexico. At this time, the population had already been significantly weakened by extreme drought, and the epidemic worsened things. The death toll was among the largest to be seen during this period and the Cocoliztli epidemic ravaged on for three years.
13. American Plagues (16th Century)
The American Plagues of the 16th century were a group of Eurasian infections that European explorers brought to the Americas. The diseases included smallpox and were devastating to the Aztec and Inca civilizations already living in the Americas. In fact, they are said to have weakened the population so much that 90 percent of indigenous people died either due to the diseases directly or the two Spanish invasions that followed. The Incan and Aztec armies were so disease-ridden they could not fight.
12. Great Plague of London (1665 to 1666)
The bubonic plague made its first pandemic appearance in the 14th century as The Black Death, then resurfaced as the Great Plague of London in 1665. This time, History.com reports that it decimated nearly 20 percent of London's population. In fact, there were so many deaths that mass graves became a common sight, and cats and dogs were slaughtered by the thousands because they were believed to cause the plague. The Great Plague of London eventually died out in 1666. However, according to CDC, bubonic plague is still active today in parts of Asia and Africa. Fortunately, modern medicine has made treatment possible.
11. Great Plague of Marseille (1720 to 1723)
The Great Marseille Plague is said to have entered the city through the Grand-Saint-Antoine ship. Although the ship was quarantined the moment it docked in France, the plague is said to have spread through the city through fleas transported on infected rodents. It killed over 100,000 people over the next three years and is estimated to have decimated up to 30 percent of Marseille's population.
10. Russian Plague (1770 to 1772)
The Russian plague had devastating effects on Moscow's social and political fabric. The city erupted into terror-fueled chaos, and violence was so rampant that Catherine the Great ordered that all factories be moved from the city. By the end, over 100,000 had died.
9. Philadelphia Yellow Fever Epidemic (1793)
Yellow fever spread across Philadelphia in 1793 when it was the United States' capital. It was transmitted by mosquitoes which were growing in number in Philadelphia around this time thanks to the particularly hot and humid weather. Although the mosquitoes died out during winter and the pandemic stopped, it had already claimed more than 5,000 lives.
8. American Polio Epidemic (1916)
The American polio epidemic began in New York City, causing over 6,000 deaths and 27,000 infections across the country. Polio mainly affects unvaccinated children and often leaves survivors with permanent, life-altering disabilities. Before scientists developed the Salk vaccine in 1954, the disease appeared sporadically across the country. Cases have since declined; the last case in the US was reported in 1979. This is largely thanks to widespread immunization.
7. Spanish Flu (1918 to 1920)
The Spanish flu was the first influenza pandemic to rock the world in the 20th century. It began spreading between 1918 and 1919 and was caused by an H1NI flu with avian roots. Although scientists and historians are unsure of where the Spanish flu virus originated, they agree it was the most brutal of the three. It affected over 500 million people, according to the CDC, and ultimately killed over 50 million people worldwide. The death toll in the US was around 675,000. Additionally, many infections happened in the North Pole and South Seas, almost pushing some indigenous communities to extinction.
6. Asian Flu (1957 to 1958)
The Asian Flu, which we have mentioned, is said to have led to the 1968 flu pandemic, also originated in China. It caused over 1.1 deaths globally and 116,000 in the US and was caused by a combination of avian flu viruses. According to the CDC, the flu spread rapidly, appearing in Singapore in February 1957, Hong Kong in April the same year, and the US coastal city by Summer.
5. Flu Pandemic (1968)
Also known as the Hong Kong Flu, the 1968 flu pandemic originated in China. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica (https://www.britannica.com/event/1968-flu-pandemic), the first case was recorded in this country in July 1968 and was caused by H3N2, an influenza A virus. This flu pandemic was the third experienced in the 20th century and claimed 1 million people globally. In the US, it was responsible for over 100,000 fatalities. Scientists believe the 1957 Asian Flu pandemic caused the 1968 strain through an antigenic shift. The shift is the reason you can't get the disease more than once.
4. AIDS Pandemic (1981 To Present Day)
Since it was first identified, AIDS has caused over 35 million deaths globally. The immune-deficiency disease is caused by HIV and is believed to have originated from a chimpanzee virus in West Africa that crossed over to human beings in the 1920s. By the late 20th century, AIDS had spread across the world and claimed enough lives to be considered a pandemic. The WHO reports that about 79.3 million people in the world have been infected with HIV since its onset, and another 36.6 million have died. By the end of 2020, it was reported that 37.7 million people were currently living with the virus. Government data places the number of HIV-positive Americans at 1.1 million. Although there is no known cure for HIV/AIDS, medical experts developed medication in the 1990s that allows people with the virus to live a normal lifespan and manage their symptoms.
3. H1N1 Swine Flu (2009 to 2010)
The swine flu pandemic of 2009 was caused by a new H1N1 strain that originated in Mexico. It began here and then quickly spread to the rest of the world, causing over 1.4 billion infections globally in one year. Overall, the pandemic caused between 151,700 and 575,400 deaths and primarily affected young adults and children. This was unprecedented because most flu strains lead to more deaths among people 65 years or older. Today, an H1NI1 virus vaccine is included in the annual flu vaccine.
2. West African Ebola Epidemic (2014 to 2016)
Between 2014 and 2016, 28,600 cases of Ebola were reported in West Africa, alongside 11,325 deaths. The first case was recorded in December 2013 in Guinea before the disease quickly spread to Sierra Leone and Liberia. Most of the cases were concentrated around these three countries, although some infections were reported in Europe, the US, Senegal, Mali, and Nigeria. Although there is currently no known cure for Ebola, scientists are continually working on a vaccine.
1. COVID-19 (2019 to Present)
Late December 2019 marked the genesis of the world's most recent pandemic – SARS-CoV-2, better known as COVID-19. Within two months, the outbreak had been declared a pandemic by the WHO and caused extensive lockdowns in several countries that would only get more severe in the coming months. COVID-19 devastated many economies, caused many deaths, and ignited panic among medical scientists as they rushed to find a cure. The virus persists today, although vaccinations and control measures have reduced the spread.
According to WHO, 6 million people have died with COVID since 2020, though no one knows how many people died of it versus with it. According to Medical News Today, most people who died with COVID also have 'one or more comorbidities'. Essentially, anyone who dies after testing positive for COVID is considered a COVID death even if their actual cause of death was illness of another sort. In fact, in Europe, anyone who dies of anything within 28 days of contracting COVID is considered a COVID death.
The Worst Pandemics have been wreaking havoc on the world for centuries, often with devastating and catastrophic results. As the world becomes more interconnected, experts believe that the rate of spread of these diseases has increased exponentially. According to Amesh A. Adalja, MD, a Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security senior scholar, "…[viruses] can [now] spread at the speed of a jet. In that sense, we're more at risk." This is evident in the fast spread of COVID-19 from Wuhan, China, to the rest of the world in a matter of months. Fortunately, modern medicine has better prepared the world for the ravages of disease.
Written by Dana Hanson
Read more posts by Dana Hanson